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‘The child is father of the man’

Do the attitudes of the young Charles Darwin help us understand his later theorizing?


Childhood is the most vital element in a person’s development. The Jesuits used to say, ‘Give me a child for the first seven years, and you may do what you like with him afterwards.’1 They knew that by the time a child had reached seven, his character would largely be set and, even at that tender age, you could ‘see’ the man. Thus they invested a lot of time and effort into ensuring that Roman Catholic teaching was instilled into the young mind.

With this principle in mind, it may be illuminating to read of the attitudes of Charles Darwin in childhood.

In their excellent biography of Darwin,2 Desmond and Moore quote from contemporary sources about him thus:

‘Inventing deliberate falsehoods became a regular method of seeking the spotlight … He would still do anything at school “for the pure pleasure of exciting attention and surprise,” and his cultivated “lies … gave [him] pleasure, like a tragedy.” He told tall tales about natural history, reported strange birds, and boasted of being able to change the colour of flowers. Once he invented an elaborate story designed to show how fond he was of telling the truth. It was a boy’s way of manipulating the world.’3

This biography is very pro-Darwin, yet makes no effort to hide his failings, which are of course common in fallen mankind. Desmond and Moore continue about the adult Darwin, ‘He craved recognition from his fellow geologists [sic]—approval shored up his respectability—and it drove him to finish the Beagle reports.’4 Darwin wanted the spotlight; he wanted approval; he wanted recognition by his peers and this was paramount in his mind. He could not abide the thought of Alfred Russel Wallace (who thought of the same concept well after Darwin did) getting the evolutionary glory before he did, so he went rapidly into print once the Wallace threat became known to him.

Darwin did not invent, or discover, evolution; it was in the air at the time (see also Darwin: learning from Grandpa this issue). He caught the mood, made it popular and gave it credibility. The problem was that he had no real evidence to support the change of one kind into another. There was ample evidence of variety (perhaps even speciation) within a biological kind (to use the biblical term, Genesis 1:11, 21, etc.) but no evidence at all for a reptile turning into a bird, or a fish into an amphibian and so on. Also there was no evidence for ape-like creatures having turned into human beings. The gaps in his data did not deter him from developing his elaborate story. Was it a man’s ‘way of manipulating the world’? I suggest that his books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were not unrelated to his childhood inventiveness ‘for the pure pleasure of exciting attention and surprise.’

As a child Darwin did not get away with his attempts at ‘manipulating the world.’ By 1859, when his first book came out, however, the world was faced with a cleverer adult, capable of a more detailed attempt at manipulation than before. Darwin may have deceived himself as well, and in fact probably did persuade himself that evolution was true.

Darwin had several possible motives, perhaps largely unconscious, for manipulating facts to suit the idea that the world evolved (i.e. made itself). For one, if the Christian Bible was true, his unbelieving deceased relatives were under eternal condemnation, which he called a ‘damnable doctrine.’5

There were many unbelievers in 1859 who wanted to find a reason to deny the God who created us. They took to the lie of evolution with alacrity.

Darwin’s elaborate attempt to present himself as an unbiased scientist, whose only interest was to uncover truth wherever that search may lead, paid off for him, and we today bear the consequences.

Title quote from: William Wordsworth, My Heart Leaps Up, line 7, 1807.


  1. Anon. Attributed as a Jesuit maxim., Leans Collectanea, Vol.3, p. 472, 1903, (quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Vol. 4, 1992). Return to text.
  2. Darwin, published by Michael Joseph, London, 1991. Return to text.
  3. Ref. 2, p. 13. Return to text.
  4. Ref. 2, p. 308. Return to text.
  5. ‘Darwin’s real message: have you missed it?’, Creation 14(4)16–19, 1992. Return to text.
Published: 29 July 2009